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Dear Instructional Designer Show! Planning and Tracking Personal Learning

In: Dear ID ShowShowing my WorkTips

Following our interview with Mel Milloway, I thought we could spend some time thinking about how to plan and track personal learning work and increase our chances of actually getting stuff done.

Last episode I caught up with my good friend Mel Milloway and she encouraged all of us to work towards what we want to be doing. She described some of the projects she was working on, for her own professional development: a tutorial on changing the background color in Storyline as well as a tycoon game in Construct 2. She also described how she has, in the past, worked on projects during her lunch hour in order to prototype a new idea and show her supervisors that she was ready to take on a new or different task. If you haven’t listened to that episode, I highly recommend it. So, however and whenever you decide to, I hope that we can all agree that there are a lot of competencies involved in instructional design and development (graphic design, presentation design, video creation, etc.) and that, in order to get better at them, we can’t just talk about them, we have to make the time to practice. This episode, let’s dig a little deeper into what it takes to plan and track your personal learning projects.

The Why

But why? Right? Why would I go through all of this trouble? Couldn’t I just be doing stuff? My first step has always been just writing stuff down. Taking time to record all of your various ideas is just a great practice in and of itself to help you get comfortable generating ideas over time. There may come a time when you look back over an idea and think, “What was I on when I wrote that?” or you may think, “Wow that’s a great idea.” Thing is, you’ll never get to have either reaction if you don’t remember the idea because you didn’t write it down or record it in some way. One of the things I’ve taken up is having a tiny little notebook that I carry around to write down all of my ideas without censoring. I have a colleague who does something similar with a heftier hardback notebook and colored pencils. He even numbers his Wild Ideas. I think the key here is having someplace to record all of your middle of the night epiphanies or wild ideas, without judgement. Just write them down. Give yourself a bounty of ideas that you can keep coming back to. The second reason why planning and tracking personal work is important is, Hey we’re only human and it is so easy to procrastinate, even on things that we think are super cool or super important. And life is busy, things come up and it’s easy to forget to practice or experiment or read. So planning your own learning or side projects is a great way to make sure that you make time to fit these things into your life. And tracking is equally important to help you understand where you’re making progress; helping you to build and keep momentum by showing you that you are actually completing things, you’re actually getting stuff done.


You can use a system like a kanban board to track your side projects, books you want to read, online courses you want to take, conferences you want to submit proposals to, game jams you want to enter, and whatever other kind of work you want to do. A Kanban board is a work and workflow visualization tool that enables you to optimize the flow of your work. The idea is that the board will help you to easily see status, issues, and progress. Many people use these board to organize their work in a week-by-week fashion. So you would dig into your notebook of wild ideas, pick one you want to implement and use the kanban board (which can be made of post-it notes, by the way, if you’d prefer) to split out that work into smaller pieces that you can accomplish. I’ll admit that I don’t actually use mine that way currently. I tend to list lots of the projects I’m most interested in in a to-do list and drag things that I am currently focused on into an In-Progress list. I also have an on-deck list for the things that I think I should focus on next. Obviously, there is also a done list that things go to when I’ve accomplished them. However, I do take the concept splitting projects into smaller pieces quite seriously. Take this podcast. It’s super easy to procrastinate on writing out new episodes or editing my interviews after their done. So I will create a Trello card that splits these big tasks into smaller ones like, write the intro and outro to episode 10; record episode 10 intro and outro; script out episode 11. And these sorts of things go into checklists.

I also use the board for other kinds of personal projects. For example, I am using Treehouse as one of my resources to learn to program in JavaScript. I’ve listed out the courses involved in the Full Stack developer track and each of them has a checklist item that I can tick when I’ve completed them. And I’ve used it to help me finish reading books like Kathy Sierra’s Badass or currently, John Medina’s Brain Rules Listen, I’ve tried a lot of other task management systems, including gamified to do apps, and list apps and this is the one system that I actually find myself using consistently and I think that’s because it’s on my terms. I decide what get’s done and when. I have a plan, as we talked about during the launch week episodes on creating a really awesome portfolio, but I also have the flexibility to change my mind. If one project begins to take priority, I can make that change without any gamification app trying to punish me for it. Something else might work for you. And a system like this not only helps with planning things that I want to do, but also with tracking where I am on them. Ticking off the items in a card’s checklist and moving cards between the decks gives me a bird’s eye view on what I’m actually getting done.

Especially if you organize your board or other system around your making cycles (be that weekly, monthly or what have you), you can have a really good view of your actual productivity around the goals you’ve set for yourself. You can even integrate Trello with some calendar apps so that you can set a date for tasks in Trello and ping yourself to get stuff done. There’s a pretty good email course from a service called Highbrow, which is a subscription learning provider (I’d like to dive into their model in another episode). They have a course on creating a productivity system which might interest you:

Final Thoughts

Before we go I want to leave you with this: The key value added in taking time to plan and track your side projects is to move beyond just a list of stuff you might want to do one day and to break down larger tasks into smaller ones that you will find easier to accomplish AND, where appropriate, to also give yourself deadline and milestone dates so things don’t fall by the wayside. And that is much more effective way of setting yourself up for success.